Thursday, November 08, 2007

Prototypes, storyboards, sculpting, and other production thoughts

Once again, Craig got me thinking. This time, he got me thinking about the usual process of building a game and how it might be improved.

A long article. Sorry, I'm a thorough thinker. =P I might not write anything tomorrow, so no one feels rushed. Anyway...

The core difficulty in game development is that the necessary process of trial-and-error is much more expensive for games than for other arts.

With any art, there's usually a lot of revision in production of quality works. So far, the development tools aren't such that game revision can be done quickly and cheaply. I think there will be a day when comprehensive software makes programming far less necessary (HeroEngine and Metaplace are just the beginning), but programmers will always be useful, since games will never be as malleable as literature or music.

The other side of that coin is prototyping. Prototyping lets you try different iterations of the same idea. It also lets you try different substructures within a main structure. And, most foreign to current game development, it lets you try many ideas (like concepts for entire games) before choosing the one with the most promise to flesh out.

I've been making music for something like 15 years now. I have literally thousands of recordings of song concepts (some are just riffs on one instrument; some are a full half of a song with multiple instruments and movements). I don't just imagine the concepts. I make sketch recordings; I build prototypes. One of the main benefits of this is that it allows me to receive feedback at the earliest stage. Not only could I let someone listen to a song concept and offer me feedback, but I could also let that person listen to half a dozen concepts and tell me how they compare. Often, words aren't enough to paint clear pictures for review.

Imagine being able to take half a dozen game prototypes to people you trust and ask them which they prefer. Like with revision, the technology will be there eventually, I think.

Considering how game development compares to the development of other arts, I wonder if more could be learned from the film industry. Blockbuster films, like AAA games, involve incredibly high production costs.

So how does a blockbuster film get made? First, the script goes through multiple iterations before the final copy. A smart director, like Spielberg, then translates the script into a storyboard; drawings of each scene (camera angles, settings and props, actor positions, etc). The scenes are then filmed in order of setting and resource availability/efficiency, not in the order of the story. The director has some leeway to try unplanned shots and perhaps even extra scenes. Finally, when all the filming is done, there's a sculpting period in which excess scenes, filmed moments, and camera angles are cut out.

Concept iterations
The first question to ask: Are game developers beginning to code too quickly?

Hollywood scripts are often revised on-set. Surely, though, beginning "hard" production with more than just a basic skeleton saves a lot of money. Perhaps the game industry should expect more conceptualization up front, like the film industry does. A film director wouldn't start filming until the script is finished. Why should a game director start coding before the gameplay is more than outlined? I doubt that anticipating enjoyable gameplay is inherently more difficult than anticipating enjoyable film experiences.

Polish should be part of the concept phase, not just the production phase.

Essentially, a storyboard is a production map of the IP. It goes beyond a Gantt chart's representation of what resources are neeeded when and by whom. It specifically diagrams how assets will relate to each other within a particular moment of the film.

I'm not a programmer, but it seems plain to me that half of programming is language (the code language, like C++) while the other half is logic. Why couldn't the logic be mapped out, similar to a film's storyboard?

I'm not suggesting that programming knowledge isn't useful at this stage. Like an experienced guitarist understands the constraints and capacities of the guitar as a particular music-communication device, an experienced programmer would understand the contraints and capacities of a particular programming language and/or other technical mediums.

Storyboarding saves money by keeping the production team small as long as possible. A storyboard also acts as a surrogate prototype, a more detailed representation for reference.

Order of production
Some game developers have shifted to a model of "pods and cells" (as one EA developer called it). Rather than having a programming department, an art department, a sound department, and a design department, one or more members of each discipline is placed onto a team devoted to one particular game feature. For example: on the production of Battle for Middle Earth: 2, one team was devoted solely to the Create-a-Hero feature for a time. I see this as an important movement in the industry. Perhaps it doesn't work for all games, but I wouldn't be surprised if it became the dominant organization style soon.

Unfortunately, in non-linear games, there's the problem of interdependency between features. If you give each feature to a team, how do you arrange for these teams to interact?

Obviously, leeway's a balancing act. There are always surprises, so there should always be room for adaptability. Constraints are good for people, good for creativity. But hanging over someone's shoulder isn't so good. That balance really boils down to common sense and personal judgement.

I suggested somewhere before that identifying a game's audience should not be a developer's first step. It should be part of the concept phase, but at the end of the concept phase.

You should start out conceiving what you, personally, think is fun. Then you outline the game, and even flesh it out to an extent. Once you have this general picture of the game, then you consider the audience. That's when you look at what you have and ask, "What is this game trying to be? What is its primary appeal? What features are peripheral to the game's core? Who does that core appeal to?" Then you whittle idea down to its essence, ensuring that the peripheral features support the main feature in some way and that nothing is extraneous.

It's an old method that was used by such successful artists as Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe called it "unity of effect". Everything comes together into a fine point, a single purpose. Removing unnecessary frills and whimsical additions is vital to clarifying and empowering the main theme.

Sculpting makes sense for the early phases of production. But I wonder if it might be usefully applied to the final phases of game production, as it is to film production.

Some substantial differences between films and games make film editing necessary. For one, film editing usually involves reducing the length of the film, because films are designed for a single, uninterrupted viewing. Game developers have to consider disc space and other tech limitations, but gamers generally want their games as long-lasting as possible, since games can be played in sessions.

Films are also edited so that the director can experiment and see how unexpected insights fit within the greater framework. One version of Scene 19 might give the audience a better sense of who a character is (perhaps because an actor was really on his game that day), while the other version of the scene is faster-paced and has a lighter tone. Because of the sculpting phase at the end of the film, the director can watch each version in the context of the other scenes (now linked together by the editor) and have a better understanding of how each affects the flow of the overall story.

In game development, the whole crew gets to play each new build of the game. Certainly, that doesn't eliminate the value of someone coming in toward the end of production for a completely fresh look at the game, but it does mean that game directors have access to feedback in a way film directors don't (yet).

So I suppose there's no obvious benefit to game developers of adding a similar sculpting phase at the end of production. I do, however, believe sculpting should be mixed in with other considerations throughout game production. In every phase, the director should periodically think back to that "unity of effect", and consider whether or not every aspect of the game is still finely focused on that ultimate purpose. Subtraction should always remain a part of your artistic palette.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, particularly on storyboarding and prototyping/iteration. I sometimes get too focused on MMO development, and forget all the other types of games out there. The core question may be (you hint at this)... what tools can be developed that can be used to help speed and regulate the non-linear aspects of the development process? (The linear aspects are the ones most amenable to the use of film-related tools and tactics, IMO.)


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